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Send photo, get action

Residents use iPhone application to alert officials of street-level problems in the city’s neighborhoods

Above, a photograph that a citizen transmitted to Boston City Hall recently via smartphone, bringing a response by public works crews. Above, a photograph that a citizen transmitted to Boston City Hall recently via smartphone, bringing a response by public works crews.
By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / February 2, 2010

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Michael Novaria’s wife was cursing when she burst through the door. It was the first snowstorm of the year, and her car was stuck on Hampstead Road, just down the hill from their house in Jamaica Plain.

So Novaria did what any devoted husband would do: He grabbed his iPhone.

Stalking outside in the snow, he snapped a picture of their street and uploaded it to City Hall. Before long, a snowplow came roaring by. Who needs a shovel in the age of the smartphone?

Tech-savvy Bostonians who already use their iPhones to send Tweets, select a wine, and play Tetris, now find that they can also employ the latest technology for something much more basic: alerting city officials to potholes, burned-out streetlights, graffiti, and other signs of urban decay.

About 2,500 Bostonians have downloaded Citizens Connect, the city of Boston’s official iPhone application for reporting street-level problems, since its debut in October, according to the mayor’s office.

Those residents have reported more than 750 complaints. There was the photo of trash bags hauled to the curb on the wrong day in Beacon Hill, the spray paint covering a bus stop in East Boston, and a rattling metal plate on Massachusetts Avenue in the South End that woke up Tom Kozlek at night.

“I feel like if I send them something, it will actually get done, as opposed to the other way of doing it, which would be to call them and report it,’’ said Kozlek, 29, a Boston University Medical School student, who said he also uses the iPhone application to report potholes he sees while biking to his girlfriend’s home in the Fenway. Often, the city fills the hole within a day or two, he said.

“Pretty much any pothole between my apartment and my girlfriend’s apartment gets reported,’’ he said.

For years, the city has run a 24-hour complaint hot line, which is often deluged by calls from a small group of serial complainers. City officials say the iPhone application is being used mostly by younger residents who have not previously called the hot line.

The iPhone complaints come from across the city, but are concentrated in an iPhone belt that stretches from downtown, through the Back Bay and South End, into the Fenway and Jamaica Plain. The application is not just for city residents; anyone can use it, as long as they report a problem in Boston.

The program is part of a push by mayors across the country who are trying to use new technology to improve the delivery of basic services. San Francisco, for example, recently released an iPhone application that lets its residents find the nearest recycling centers. San Jose, Calif., and Pittsburgh, meanwhile, released their own municipal complaint applications.

“All of this stuff is just blossoming,’’ said Bill Peduto, a city councilor in Pittsburgh who helped develop iBurgh, that city’s iPhone application. “The ’80s saw government going on cable, the ’90s saw you going online instead of in line for services, and I think today we’re seeing the advent of e-democracy, where people can be empowered through technology to get involved in their government.’’

While Mayor Thomas M. Menino lavishes attention on public works, he has raised concerns that computer technology will rob government of the personal touch. He famously refuses to use e-mail or to allow voicemail at City Hall.

Yet Menino has embraced Citizens Connect and declared last month, at his inauguration for a fifth term, that technology now makes it possible for all residents to play a role in repairing the city.

“We are all urban mechanics,’’ he said.

Among the new urban mechanics is Rob Pyles, 32, an entrepreneur from East Boston, who calls the iPhone application “a beautiful thing.’’ Pyles has uploaded images of graffiti four times in the last three months.

“It’s cool to see something in your neighborhood that you don’t like or that’s wrong and you had to ignore, and now you can whip out your phone, snap a photo of it, and report it to the city,’’ he said. “I don’t think I’m going to call anything that’s called a hotline. It just sounds like nothing good is going to happen.’’

Citizens Connect is free to download. The application automatically detects the location of the user with GPS technology, and then connects the location to the photo of the problem that the user uploads.

At City Hall, a computer automatically routes most complaints to the nearest public works yard, where officials are supposed to print them out and hand them to a repair crew. Unusual complaints are reviewed first by a City Hall employee, who then decides which agency should handle the problem.

City officials said that all complaints are treated equally, whether they come in through a phone call or the iPhone application, and that problems are addressed, on average, within five days. Complaints are handled on a first-come, first-served basis, according to Nigel Jacob, the mayor’s senior adviser on emerging technology, who helped design the application.

Jacob said city officials are pleased with the response from the public and with the 2,500 downloads to date. “It doesn’t make us the most popular app in the iTunes store by any means, but it’s a good number,’’ he said.

There have been a handful of problems the city cannot handle. Some users have reported concerns about state-owned property, which the city cannot fix.

And there have been hiccups, too, as users have learned how to use the photo reporting mechanism.

“In the first week, we got a lot of coffee mugs and shoes reported,’’ Jacob said. “People were just playing with it.’’

Novaria, who used his iPhone to get his street plowed, said that before downloading the application, he would not have bothered trying to get attention from City Hall.

“I would have just lamented it,’’ said Novaria, 39, a lawyer. “But knowing it existed, it was like the squeaky wheel gets the oil.’’

Ross Levanto, a 33-year-old public relations specialist from Beacon Hill, used the application to report a darkened gas streetlight near his home. Within days, the light had been fixed.

“You’re walking along the street, and you see something that is annoying, you see something that is broken or needs to be fixed, and, whammo!’’ he said. “Within a minute, you can take a picture, report it, and know it’s going to be taken care of.’’

Heather Sears, who lives in the South End, often calls the city hotline, but said she prefers using her iPhone when she sees graffiti in alleyways near home.

“It gives me this feeling of being instantly gratified,’’ she said. “I feel like I’m armed and helpful, because I’ve got this tool and I can make an instant difference.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.